Healthcare systems in many parts of the world are striving to become more patient-centered, but the idea of a customer-driven healthcare experience remains out of reach for many. At the same time, patients are embracing a more holistic approach to treating their ailments, especially when it comes to chronic pain. Cue Dala Wellness, a digital health start-up founded on a simple promise: to listen to patients in pain and help them get back to doing the things they love. Fahed Al Essa (MBA/MPH/MB), founder and CEO, has driven the creation of Dala’s core offering, a digital wellness program that complements traditional medical treatment for patients with autoimmune conditions by offering mindfulness, nutrition, and exercise solutions. Al Essa, an entrepreneur and former strategy director at Taiba Hospital in his native Kuwait, talks to us about giving patients treatment options with a purpose.
Frustration with Healthcare’s Status Quo
With his background in healthcare, Al Essa observed too many patients with sub-optimal treatment experiences. Academic research supports this claim, citing lack of educational preparation and clinical experience on behalf of providers, issues pertaining to legal and ethical questions around pain management, and potential differences in attitude and knowledge between patient and provider. A study focused on patients from the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), for example, found that the majority of patients who sought medical attention due to chronic pain were disappointed by the level of care they received (BMJ Open, 2017). Study participants reported that the healthcare professionals they engaged with lacked empathy and interest, as well as specialized knowledge of their issues. They felt that providers did not truly listen to what they were saying, and had difficulty communicating effectively among themselves. Finally, patients reported that they did not have enough time for consultation, leading to healthcare professionals prescribing medicine without a patient’s full history.
For Al Essa, serving the patient comes before all else. He has observed too many patients with chronic joint pain bounce from one medication to the next, without providers truly understanding their experience. “To offer the best care, you have to be the patient’s confidant,” he says. “Take time to listen to their problems attentively and understand their frustrations. You have to be there for them, to listen when no one else will.”
Only by listening to patients does Al Essa believe you can build a meaningful solution that can address their pain points holistically. “There is no silver bullet, especially with chronic pain. But multiple tools can be taught to patients to address their pain,” he says.
Sharing these tools successfully with patients, and helping them identify what works best for them, involves clear communication, trust, and transparency. Though each patient is unique and finding the right set of tools may require some trial and error, the same approach can be used regardless: listen to the patient, share their treatment options and expected outcomes, and support them in their decision and journey towards healing. The end goal is simple: the patient is in a better and healthier place than where they started.
The Dala Wellness Vision
Using these key tenets of patient-centricity, Al Essa founded Dala Wellness in 2019. The Dala Wellness program uses a variety of solutions to support a patient’s journey towards healthier joints. Its four-pronged approach includes a personalized holistic wellness plan combining cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and nutrition, evidence-based complementary medicine, a tailored supplement subscription, and a clinically-tested pain management program. Patients can work with the Dala team to select from this suite of tools and determine what works best for their lifestyle; it is not a one-size-fits-all model, as every patient is unique and reacts to treatment differently. Through building trust with patients, Dala can co-create plans that give them the best possible chance at success — helping them better manage their pain, reduce anxiety and stress, and engage with those around them in a more productive way. According to Al Essa, “we provide tools that patients can incorporate into their daily lives, not pills that cure everything. Because that doesn’t exist.” He adds, “We want to be [the patient’s] allies, not another burden or cost center.”
To develop the program, Al Essa and his team consulted healthcare professionals, mindfulness experts, chronic pain specialists, nutritionists, and physical therapists. Of course, feedback from those suffering from chronic joint pain — their most important stakeholder group — was also central in their effort to design a holistic and modular solution. “We sit with patients, physicians, and stakeholders,” says Al Essa. “We sit and listen. That is what’s lacking in the healthcare environment: time to listen!”
In line with its commitment to patient-centricity, Dala Wellness prides itself on making its services accessible to a broad range of people. According to Healthy People 2020, the latest report from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HSS) and other key federal agencies, reliable access to health services can have a range of benefits, including preventing disease and disability, increasing quality of life, and increasing life expectancy, to name a few. With one in five Americans lacking health insurance, there are many in need who may not be able to afford healthcare services out-of-pocket (Healthy People 2020). For Dala Wellness, however, healthcare is a human right that is non-negotiable. The company will do whatever it can to support a patient seeking to benefit from its tools. “We strive to make a difference,” says Al Essa. “We will not refuse service to anyone. If you have Medicaid, we will give it to you at cost. If you still cannot afford it, we will figure out a way to help you on a case-by-case basis.”
Navigating the Future of Dala Wellness
Al Essa understands the multiple stress factors for individuals with chronic pain face. They are often overwhelmed by receiving their diagnosis, evaluating and selecting treatment options, and understanding how this new reality affects their sense of self. As a 2017 Harvard Business Review article put it, patients are looking for “ a wise, comforting sherpa who knows the mountain, the risks of various routes, the viable contingency plans,” (Harvard Business Review, 2017). Anyone who spends time with Al Essa can see how he embodies this role as a sherpa.
Along with his kind-heartedness, Al Essa has a strategic business mindset and high hopes for the future. Dala Wellness is currently pre-launch, but an initial set of customers has begun to use the program. “Some have said that it’s the first time they have run pain-free in a while. Some have mentioned it’s the first time in eight years that they have slept well,” said Al Essa. For a company whose ultimate goal is getting patients back to doing what they love, this is an exciting beginning.
Moving forward, Al Essa hopes to build a community of Dala Wellness customers who can support each other. He envisions one-day using data to match patients with others on similar treatment regimens for camaraderie and support. He also hopes to use data to guide medical recommendations based on the patient profile in a healthcare setting. Al Essa shares, “we are just getting started. We are building features and tools that will allow our patients to improve their health and wellness further.”